‘Broken Horses’ Never Finds Its Stride

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From the opening scenes of Broken Horses, the English language debut of Indian director Vindhu Vinod Chopra, it becomes quite apparent that something is just a bit off. During this moment that’s intended to be tender conversation between father and son and set up the events that follow instead establishes the film’s plodding, obvious dialogue and its cavalier attitude towards drama and tension. All of which is punctuated when the father is randomly shot in the face. But like so many other things in Broken Horses, this just kind of happens. And though the fatal bullet echoes through the entire film, the moment of impact is a big fat whiff.

Having grown up after the death of their father, the Heckum brother, Jake and Buddy, have gone their separate ways. Jake (Anton Yelchin) has moved to New York, gotten engaged, and mastered the violin. His mentally handicapped brother Buddy (Chris Marquette), meanwhile, has stayed behind in the dusty border town they called home. Before he is to marry Vittoria (Maria Valverde), Jake travels back to his hometown to see a surprise his brother has for him. While driving from visiting his old piano teacher Ignacio (Sean Patrick Flanery), one of Buddy’s friends attempts to kill Jake. The hit was ordered by Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), Buddy’s boss and local crime lord of this nondescript border town, and upon learning this Jake becomes determined to get Buddy out of this dark underworld. Part of Jake’s plan is to infiltrate Julius’ gang and betray him to his Mexican rival Mario Vargos Garza (Jordi Caballero). Julius Hench is an evil man capable of great brutality, and Jake must try to save his brother without being swallowed up in darkness himself.

If any of that synopsis sounded promising, let me assure you that Broken Horses makes the least of its promise. Sometimes when a movie isn’t engaging me, I jot down little predictions about its outcome. Pretty much all of my predictions came to fruition by the film’s conclusion. I can’t shrug the feeling that Chopra and his writing partner Abhijat Joshi did themselves a disservice by not passing off their script to another writer better versed in American culture. It’s not that there’s the typical language barrier that one usually finds when other foreign directors work in American for the first time, where they don’t understand the nuance of the language, but a different kind of language barrier – both colloquial and cinematic. Their dialogue lacks anything that resembles reality, most characters extensively explain their inner thoughts. I’m certainly not too familiar with Bollywood films, but I suspect that they’re probably much more explicit about characters stating their emotional thoughts.  Aside from the numerous issues with writing, Vindhu Vinod Chopra’s direction is more than competent which only highlights the script’s deficiencies.

The film’s leads avail themselves well for the most part. Anton Yelchin is a consistently good actor, though his character consistently makes bewildering decisions which only serves to rob Yechin’s performance of all subtlety. The same could be said of Vincent D’Onofrio as the vicious and manipulative Hench. In one particular scene, Hench is visiting the grave of his wife and child, whom he burned alive years prior, when he sees candles lit and freaks out. The set up and execution is so blundered that all I could think was “FIRE BAD!” But nothing is the film is worse than the regrettable performance by Chris Marquette as Buddy. The character that is defined by a vague mental handicapped is played to 11 by Marquette. Robert Downey, Jr.’s speech in Tropic Thunder was going through my head during each of Marquette’s scenes. I don’t want to fault Marquette too much because I sincerely doubt that anyone could’ve pulled that character off – I mean, at one point Buddy says “bestest.” It’s a character without much nuance or depth and seems symptomatic of the cultural differences that Chopra wasn’t prepared to acknowledge.

Sitting in the screening room, I tried to give Broken Horses as many chances as possible. But it just doesn’t work. It’s a discordant drama that never finds the right notes on anything that it attempts. The film has all the right elements to be much more interesting than it is, like a recipe that had all the ingredients but was screwed up on the stove, yet it fails to be interesting on a basic level. Broken Horses treats its audience like Buddy, as if we’re all easily manipulated, and that’s not respecting the audience or the characters. Vindhu Vinod Chopra has come a long way to make a movie in America, but he’s still has a long way to go to make a good movie in America.

Broken Horses opens in limited release on April 10th.

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